What are Physical Sunscreens & Chemical Sunscreens?

All of us know that sunscreen is very important for many bodily functions, like maintaining the circadian rhythm and also includes the production of vitamin D. But excess exposure to the sunlight can damage the skin and can even cause risk of skin cancer. Therefore wearing sunscreen is very important if you have to be out in the sun for a longer duration. 

In this article we will be studying the sunscreens, basically the physical and the chemical sunscreen and the following points.


What is physical sunscreen?

Physical sunscreens are those sunscreens that contain mineral ingredients in it such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and work by sitting on the top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. Physical sunscreen is often referred to as physical blockers or mineral sunscreen.

These are also called Natural Sunscreen, tend to be better tolerated by most skin types because the ingredients used in these are not irritating for many people. However, physical sunscreens tend to leave a white cast or white streaks on the skin after application.

Physical sunscreens are also a bit thicker so there may be more difficult to apply. 

Physical sunscreens work by diverting the ultraviolet rays away from the skin. Physical sunscreens blocks and scatters the Ultra violet rays by sitting on the surface of the skin. This is because of the mineral filters present in the sunscreen.

Most common mineral filters are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Physical UV filters can also be used with the chemical filters for a synergistic effect to create a high SPF sunscreen (SPF 30 or SPF 50).


Advantages of Physical Sunscreens:

  • These are usually whiter in colour and thicker in consistency as compared to the chemical sunscreens therefore the areas where it is applied can be easily seen.

  • The physical UV filters are less irritating than the certain chemical filters therefore can be used on the sensitive skin too.

  • Broad-spectrum sunscreens and offer protection against both UVA and UVB radiations from the sun.

  • Gives protection from the sun as it is applied.

  • They last longer when you are out in the direct sunlight.

  • Ideal for the acne-prone skin as they are less likely to clog the pores.

  • The persons suffering from redness and rosacea can easily use physical one.

  • Physical sunscreens have a more moisturizing effect on the skin.

  • Also, they have a longer shelf life (prolonged expiration date).

Disadvantages of Physical sunscreen

  • Physical sunscreens are often thicker and heavier on the skin than a chemical sunscreen.
  • Physical sunscreens leave a white cast after application which can be incompatible for medium to dark skin tones.


  • They can easily be rinsed off, rubbed off during swimming or sweating, therefore frequent re-applications are required.
  • Physical mineral activities offer less protection from the ultraviolet radiations.

What is chemical sunscreen?

These are the sunscreens that contain organic (carbon-based) compounds in it such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone, which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. They are often referred to as organic absorbers.

The number of sunscreens that are found in the pharmacy shelves is generally chemical sunscreens. 

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays by sinking into the skin. These are thinner and less greasy as compared to physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreen are also water resistant sunscreens.

These can be applied before the makeup and also a good option for dry skin. 

Advantages of Chemical Sunscreen

  • Chemical sunscreens are thinner as compared to the physical one therefore they spread more easily on the skin.
  • Even less amount of chemical sunscreen can provide highly effective protection because there is no space between the sunscreen molecules.
  • These can be made with a non-sticky and a lightweight feel.
  • They spread easily on the skin, there is no ghosting effect.
  • Chemical one can also be formulated with the physical UV filters to ensure broad-spectrum sun protection.
  • Chemical sunscreens are easier to add with other additional active ingredients like enzymes, antioxidants and peptides and can offer skin protecting benefits.

Disadvantages of Chemical Sunscreen

  • Frequent re-application like physical sunscreen is required.
  • You have to apply 20 or 40 minutes prior before going out in the sun exposure.
  • It is sometimes not suitable for sensitive skin.
  • Higher the SPF higher will be chances of the irritation of the sensitive skin types.


  • Persons suffering from rosacea-prone skin types have increased chances of redness.
  • Can cause an increase in the existing brown spots and also the discolouration which is basically due to the internal skin temperature.
  • Chemical sunscreens may clog the pores for oily skin types.

Physical sunscreen vs. Chemical sunscreen

The simple answer to the question of choosing the physical or the chemical sunscreen is that choose that sunscreen skin that feels comfortable on your skin. A non-greasy and a lightweight sunscreen is suitable for the oilier skin type. If you have sensitive skin and it gets red easily then you will have to apply the sunscreen that will not rip-off or irritate your skin.

For the skin type that has bumps and clogged pores, you will prefer the ingredients that will not clog your pores. If you have deep skin colour then all you want is a sunscreen that does not look chalky on the skin.

Both the physical and the chemical sunscreens do a great job to protect the skin from harmful ultraviolet radiations just you have to find the one that feels good when applied on the skin and also you want to wear that sunscreen every day. For more information on how to choose sunscreen, you can click here!


  • Is chemical or physical sunscreen better?

As we have discussed in the above articles about both types of sunscreens. All you need to choose the sunscreen is according to your skin type. Both the chemical and physical sunscreen have their advantages.

  • Can you use chemical and physical sunscreen together?

Yes, physical and chemical sunscreens can be used together. Most of the broad spectrum sunscreens take the advantage of both the types of ingredients i.e chemical and physical.

  • Can I skip moisturizer and use sunscreen?

No, you cannot use sunscreen in place of a moisturizer. The role of moisturizer is to hydrate whereas sunscreen protects the skin from the harmful UV rays. It will be beneficial if you apply moisturizer before using the sunscreen.

  • Is it bad to wear sunscreen every day?

No, it is not bad to wear sunscreen everyday especially when you have to go out in the sun for a longer duration. It is also important to reapply sunscreen every 80 minutes or  two hours depending upon the UV exposure.

Comment 1

Cynthia on

At what concentration will tell you that your spf is 30 or 50

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